more women file for office
Shay White, a Democrat running for House District 77 in Tulsa, fills out paperwork for the Tulsa World after filing for office Wednesday, April 11, 2018. (William W. Savage III)

(Editor’s note: This story was authored by Trevor Brown of Oklahoma Watch and appears here in accordance with the non-profit journalism organization’s republishing terms.)

In 2012, just 35 women filed for one of the 125 Oklahoma legislative seats that were up for election.

This year, there will be nearly four times as many women running for the same number of seats. And following a trend across the nation, women will be better represented on the ballot than in at least a decade — and likely ever.

Female lawmakers say women bring a different perspective and tone to the often-contentious world of lawmaking. But Oklahoma’s gender disparity in its Legislature, which is among the most heavily male dominated in the country, is likely to continue despite efforts such as the Oklahoma teacher walkout, the #MeToo movement and liberal opposition to President Donald Trump that have motivated more women across the country to enter politics.

An Oklahoma Watch review of 2018 legislative candidate filings, social media pages and campaign websites shows that women make up 32 percent of this year’s field. That’s a significant increase over the past four election cycles, when female representation among legislative candidates ranged from 15 percent to 22 percent.

The increase has the potential to bring more gender parity to a Legislature that has 21 female lawmakers, or 14.2 percent of the 149-member body. The proportion of female legislators is the 49th smallest in the country — second only to Wyoming, where women make up about 11 percent of the Legislature — and well below the 25.4 percent representation of women in legislatures nationwide.

However, because only male candidates are running in half of the Senate or House races, it’s a certainty that men will continue to outnumber women in the Oklahoma Legislature.

The question is, by how much? The results on Nov. 6 could indicate whether efforts by women’s advocacy groups to narrow the gender gap were successful.

“We are optimistic by what we are seeing this year,” said Alyssa Fisher, programs manager with Sally’s List, a group that trains women to run for office. “But you have to remember the women’s rights movement didn’t happen overnight, and this won’t either.”

‘National movements have impacted women’

Oklahoma is not alone in seeing more women running for office this year.

The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, which tracks the number of women running for federal and statewide offices across the country, reports that 2018 will be a record-setting year for women running in congressional and gubernatorial races.

The 474 female candidates who have filed or announced plans to file for U.S. House races is on pace to smash the last record-setting year, when 298 women ran for House races in 2012.

Similar to Oklahoma’s statehouse, even these numbers won’t close the disparity, at least not right away. According to an analysis by the New York Times, even if a woman were to win in every U.S. House district where a female is running, 152 women lawmakers would be elected. That would double their share in Congress, but men still would still outnumber women, by nearly two to one.

Still, the numbers indicate women are becoming more involved in politics than ever before.

Liz Waggoner, executive director of the Oklahoma Women’s Coalition, a nonpartisan group that sponsors a “Pipeline to Politics” program to encourage more women to run, said women in Oklahoma are responding to national and local concerns.

Those include the #MeToo movement, which has empowered women to speak out against sexual assault and harassment, and the marches earlier this year that brought out millions of supporters to protest for women’s rights and social issues at major cities and state capitols across the country. Scores of women in Oklahoma protested, too.

“There is no doubt that national movements have impacted women,” Waggoner said, “and it certainly looks like that has trickled down to Oklahoma.”

Waggoner said the debate over education funding and the teacher walkout have also galvanized women to run for office. Women dominate the teaching profession and are heavily involved in nonprofits and agencies that are focused on child welfare.

“You had people who have never been the Capitol before or couldn’t tell you the difference between a congressman, representative or senator,” she said. “But after spending a few days there, they could see they could add value and are ready to get their hands dirty.”

According to a nearly 79,000-member Facebook group that was organized to support the walkout, 95 current or former public-school educators, not counting incumbents, are running for legislative races this year. Of those, 57 are women.

The walkout, which drew thousands to the Capitol each day for two weeks, has also inspired women outside the teaching profession to run.

Denecia Taylor-Cassil is an attorney in Edmond who marched along with the teachers at the Capitol. She said she had never considered running, but after attending a rally at the Capitol, she decided that the Legislature could use more women like herself.

“When you look at our state, if women are 49 percent of the population, you would hope they would be 49 percent of our Legislature, but it’s certainly not like that,” she said. “After seeing how underrepresented women are, I figured we could have a few more ‘momma bears’ willing to fight for their communities.”

Women also running statewide, for Congress

Similar to the legislative races, more women also are running as congressional candidates in Oklahoma.

Nine, or 25 percent, of the 39 candidates vying for the state’s five U.S. House seats are women. That’s up from 17 percent and 11 percent, respectively, of the state’s U.S. House candidates in the 2016 and 2014 elections.

The gubernatorial field, however, is much more male-dominated in the past.

Democrat Connie Johnson’s is the sole woman in the 14-person race to succeed Gov. Mary Fallin, who became the state’s first female governor when she was elected in 2010.

‘We just want to draft good policy’

Just weeks after declaring her candidacy, Taylor-Cassil witnessed some of the challenges that women face on the campaign trail.

“While knocking on doors, I’ve had a couple of men tell me that I should be at home with my children,” she said. “I was kind of blown away that type of thing still occurs in the 21st century, and this is the type of question (men) would never be asked.”

Sen. Stephanie Bice (R-OKC) one of seven women in the 48-member Senate, said running for office can be intimidating when female candidates know they will likely be outnumbered by men on the ballot and, if elected, in the Legislature.

But she said the relatively few female legislators have been able to thrive. Sen. Kim David (R-Wagoner) was recently named the next majority floor leader, and Sen. Kay Floyd (D-OKC) was elected to be the body’s next minority leader. 

Bice has had her own legislative accomplishments, including leading the push to modernize Oklahoma’s alcohol laws.

Bice said having more women in the Legislature is important because women can provide perspective and life experiences different from men’s. 

“Women also tend to be a little bit more collaborative,” Bice said. “There isn’t as much of a focus on who gets credit. We just want to draft good policy.”

Determining whether women are as electable as men is difficult to tell since party affiliation, incumbency and district demographics play a large role.

But in primary races for open seats in 2010 races in which a man and woman were competing against each other, the woman won about half the time.

“When women run, there is typically a large percentage of them that will win,” Waggoner said. “So that tells me the shortage of women in the Legislature isn’t just because they are running and losing, but it’s because we need to convince more to run.”

‘Conservative family values are very attractive for women’

Politics also are a factor in motivating women to run.

This year’s election filings show that 59 of the 250 Republicans running, or 23 percent, are women, while 76 of the 171 Democrats, or 44 percent, are women.

Sara Jane Rose, founder and executive director of Sally’s List, which works primarily with progressive candidates, said she believes most of the female candidates are running as Democrats because the party has been more at the forefront on social issues important to women, such as paid family leave, abortion rights and access to health care.

“I don’t think the Republican Party has been as friendly to women,” she said. “There is a difference in the Republican Party’s behavior and voting record on women’s issues.”

Tammie Reynolds, an assistant superintendent with Elgin Public Schools who is running as a Republican in the House District 63 race, disagreed.

Reynolds said the GOP is just as welcoming to women as the Democratic Party and that there is wide base of support for women who run as Republicans.

“I think conservative family values are very attractive for women,” she said. “And I think whether you are a Republican or Democrat, we want the same things: a good education system, improving our quality of life and seeing our small businesses continue to prosper.”

Waggoner said the challenge is to encourage women, regardless of political affiliation, to run.

She said both Republican and Democratic women tend to agree on many issues, such as increasing funding for public education and finding ways to reduce the number of incarcerated women in the state.

“I think we put too much stock in labels,” she said. “A lot of these aren’t partisan issues. They are human issues.”